Eve Middleton explores the life of the aristocratic artist lost to the murky underworld of Montmartre…
Born Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa on 24 November 1864 in Albi, the young Toulouse-Lautrec was brought up in an aristocratic world where his birth afforded wealth and privilege as part of one of France’s oldest and most distinguished families. His father, the Comte Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, and his mother, the Comtesse Ad�le Tapi� de Celeyran, were direct descendants of the Comtes de Toulouse, at one time one of the most powerful names in France. Consanguineous marriage was encouraged within the family in order to protect the Toulouse-Lautrec name, and so first cousins Ad�le and Alphonse were joined in matrimony.
As a result, generational health problems were rife. When he was four years old, the young Toulouse-Lautrec suffered the loss of his younger brother Richard-Constantin, when the child was just a year old. The physical effects of his parents’ blood bond also resulted in ill health for Toulouse-Lautrec himself, and he suffered from a number of ailments including the bone condition pycnodysostosis, now known as Toulouse-Lautrec syndrome. As a young teenager he fractured his right thigh bone while out horse riding. The break refused to heal and when he fractured his left leg a year later, the same effect occurred. His legs never grew beyond the size they were at the time of the accidents, resulting in Toulouse-Lautrec’s infamous stature – varying reports place his adult height ranging from 4’ 6” to 5’ 1”.
His childhood interest in art and sketching intensified when he became unable to participate in leisure activities due to his physical condition. Cruelly mocked by his peers and emotionally distant father for his appearance and distinctive lisp, he threw himself into his work and moved to Paris to pursue his career. He set up residence in Montmartre, known at the time for its wild lifestyle and bohemian atmosphere. Here he mixed with artists, prostitutes and dancehall performers, embracing the many kaleidoscopic facets of human life. He lived among poets and musicians, and for a short while resided in the brothel La Fleur Blanche where he painted the portraits of the working girls. He became well-known in the neighbourhood and in his professional field, earning the nickname, “l’�me de Montmartre”, the soul of Monmartre.
When the nearby Moulin Rouge opened, Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned to create a series of posters, affording him the opportunity to earn his own money away from the constraints of the allowance from his family. While other artists saw the work as demeaning and commercial, Toulouse-Lautrec’s aristocratic status meant he held little regard for social conformities, and so he approached the task with grace and verve. The distinctive poster designs he produced proved unique, and showed dancers in asymmetric compositions set in large areas of flat colour in shades of red, cream and black. The girls of the Moulin Rouge became stars thanks to Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, including Louise Weber, also known as La Goulue (The Glutton) and Jane Avril, who became Toulouse-Lautrec’s close friend.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s natural inclination to sit on the fringes of convention meant that he threw himself in to the all-too-available drinking scene of Montmartre. While he first drowned his sorrows in beer and wine, he soon progressed to cognac and absinthe, and quickly became an alcoholic. He devoted his time equally to art and drinking, and as a result was admitted to a sanatorium in 1899. His health continued to deteriorate, and his mother – long separated from her husband – brought him to her home at the Ch�teau de Malorm� where he died on 9 September 1901, aged just 36 years old.
Remembered as the archetypal bohemian artist of the Belle �poque, his work captured the vibrant spirit and thriving era of change taking place in Paris at the end of the 19th century. The infectious spirit of the late 1800s was clearly captured in his strong lines and use of colour, not to mention the speed and quality of his work. At the time of his death, it is estimated he had produced more than 900 paintings and watercolours, 5,000 drawings and 370 lithographs including his famous posters; resulting in some of the best-known iconic illustrations of Paris still recognised and loved around the world today.
• There have been several incarnations of Toulouse-Lautrec on the silver screen; the most recent notable performance was by the actor John Leguizamo in the 2001 Baz Luhrman film Moulin Rouge!.
• Toulouse-Lautrec was a passionate Anglophile and a friend of Oscar Wilde. He was a vocal supporter of the writer during his trial and produced a portrait of his friend in the same year.
• The invention of the Tremblement de Terre (earthquake) cocktail is attributed to Toulouse-Lautrec and is a potent mixture of equal parts absinthe to equal parts cognac.
• Toulouse-Lautrec’s last words – “Vieux con!” (“Old fool!”) – were reportedly addressed to his father, who had made a rare appearance at his son’s deathbed.
• The Mus�e Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi features more about the artist and his work (Tel: (Fr) 5 63 49 48 70, www.museetoulouselautrec.net)
• [please note that there are pics in the folder from the below exhibition – if we use them please include the below point, if not we can leave it out]
• Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge is on at The Courtauld Gallery in London until 18 September. Tel: 0207 872 0220,